The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor



Why does Art Nouveau design look like that? (Wisteria Lamp by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany's, 1902)

The first reference to Art Nouveau - "New Art" - was in Belgium in 1884. It became an international phenomenon by the 1890s and was finished by WW1. But, despite its brief lifespan, Art Nouveau is one of the most enduringly popular styles - so where did it come from?

There are two distinct trends that influenced Art Nouveau. The first was a growing discomfort with the overly historical state of architecture and art in the 19th century. Consider the Impressionists, who were reacting to the historical principles of the "Academic" style:

In music, too, composers were beginning to experiment with the traditional rules of composition, pushing beyond Romanticism. While 19th century architecture was dominated by historial revivals, whether Gothic, Byzantine, Classical, or Romanesque. It was time for something new.

And so in the 1880s a new, optimistic style was born, one which was thoroughly forwards-looking. Art Nouveau's distinctive flowing curves and shapes were an attempt to introduce something *new* into the stale world of design, in this case inspired by natural forms.

The second - and perhaps more interesting - influence on Art Nouveau was an anxiety about the impact of industrialisation and mass-production on the arts. What had once been the sole remit of skilled individuals was now being democratised; art was being removed from the artist.

Hence why the English designer William Morris was a key influence on Art Nouveau. He realised that traditional craftsmanship was threatened - both its quality and its practice - by mass production. Morris argued that those who designed should also make.

Alongside William Morris in England was Viollet-le-Duc in France, whose firm belief in "rational" architecture and enthusiasm for modern materials were hugely infuential on a whole generation of architects. The "form follows function" mantra can be traced back to him.

The result of these trends was an all-encompassing design philosophy - modern in form but traditional in practice - which applied no less to architecture than to interior design. From Belgium in the 1880s it spread to France in the 1890s and from there to the rest of the world.

A great example is the HΓ΄tel Tassel in Brussels, designed by Victor Horta in 1893 and regarded as the first fully Art Nouveau building. Because Horta didn't just design the building; he also designed its furniture and interior, according to the forms and materials of Art Nouveau

In Germany this idea was called "Gesamtkunstwerk" - a total synthesis of every artistic field. It was a unification of the fine arts and traditional crafts: painters, architects, joiners, glassblowers, metalworkers; all could contribute equally to the same projects.

Hence the unity of appearance in Art Nouveau buildings, where each of its elements is an art work all of its own, whether balconies or windows or elevators or staircases. Which is rather well embodied by the entrance to the Lavirotte Building, designed by Jules Lavirotte (1901).

Of course, Art Nouveau also applied to the smallest and finest of objects. Ashtrays, brooches, belt buckles, sconces, vases... nothing was beyond the remit of Art Nouveau, as much a practical approach to making art as a set of aesthetic principles.

Art Nouveau lamps in particular capture this belief in quality craftsmanship with their flowing forms and decadent materials, their stained glass and fine metalwork:

It even applied to sugar bowls and teapots! These are luxury items designed and crafted with care and attention, intentionally opposed to anything that mass production could create, both because of their expensive materials and complexity of design.

Or combs!

While Art Nouveau ceramics were heavily influenced by Japanese art - as the Impressionists had been - with their freedom from the stale styles of 19th century Europe.

Think of it this way: if you buy a new door it will have no named designer - it's a standard model, one of thousands. It was in opposition to such faceless mass production that Art Nouveau stood; a refuge of artists against industrialisation. This door had *three* designers:

This unity of design principles influenced the visual arts too - graphic design and posters in particular. And, related, was the creation of fonts and typefaces which also espoused those same curving forms. Hence the famous Art Nouveau typeface, exemplified by the Paris Metro:

Of course, a movement with the international popularity of Art Nouveau can't be reduced to a single, canonical set of ideas. In France, its homeland, and in America, Art Nouveau was perhaps at its most luxurious, flamboyant, and decadent:

While in Barcelona the Art Nouveau evolved into a distinctive style known as Catalan Modernisme, an architectural and artistic embodiment of the region's burgeoning national identity, led by the inimitable Antoni Gaudi with his quasi-biological forms and sculpted buildings:

And in Austria the Vienna Secession was even more modernist. Though it ran parallel to Art Nouveau in many ways, its preferred shapes were more geometric. A direct forebear to the kind of modernism that would soon replace Art Nouveau altogether.

Because Art Nouveau was ultimately short-lived. It was perhaps unsustainable by its very nature, ill-at-ease with the economic truths of the modern age and incompatible with the inevitable rise of mass production. Not to mention guilty by association with prewar Europe.

After WW1 the Art Nouveau was subsumed by Art Deco, another cross-field international design philosophy, which by the 1930s had itself started evolving into modernism as we know it today, stripped back and suited to the economic reality of the modern world.

And yet, despite its brief existence, the Art Nouveau has proved enduringly popular. There's something about its mixture of optimistic modernism and traditional craftsmanship, its flowing forms and luxurious materials, that has continued to captivate and inspire a century on...

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